He’s Greening to Grow (Part 1)


Tom O’Brien, owner of O’Brien The Cleaner, says the public art initiative group in his town of Berwyn, Ill., a near-west Chicago suburb, picked the east wall of his building as the canvas for a locally based graffiti artist to create the stunningly eye-catching green mural. “When they came to me and explained it was for the community, I was all-in,” he relates. (Photo: Tim Burke)


Tom O’Brien poses with the graffiti artist Miss Merlot, who wears her spray paint safety mask to protect her identity in photographs. They are standing in front of just a small portion of the building-long mural, done in shapes and patterns involving many shades of greens.


Tom O’Brien (at left), who owns O’Brien The Cleaner, stands with Berwyn Public Art Initiative board members Melissa and Rob Kowalski.

Tim Burke |

Growing your reputation within your community

CHICAGO — Seeing green?

Yes. You are. Lots of it. And beautiful. But it’s not money green. It’s the multi-green hues and shapes of a stylish, modern new mural.

Beyond the green of profits, one drycleaning operation found out that growing green also comes in the form of local community involvement.

Meet Tom O’Brien, the owner of O’Brien The Cleaner, a drycleaning business located in the near-west Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., population 55,000.

“Since January 2018, I have been working alongside the Berwyn Public Art Initiative (BPAI),” O’Brien says.

“They have just completed a mural on my drive-up window side of the building. I have felt passionately about this mural to add to the beauty of Berwyn.”

According to its website, the BPAI writes: “The Depot District functions in many ways as the center of community life in Berwyn. Adding vibrancy with public art is vital.”

The BPAI already had another artist install a mural in May a few blocks away on the other side of the commuter train tracks. O’Brien The Cleaner was next for a mural to be completed in summer. It was completed on July 23.

“When BPAI representatives came to me in the winter and explained it was for the community, I was all-in,” the owner of the drycleaning business says.

He adds with a grin: “We were going to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”

The artist picked for the job was a Seattle native, currently based in Chicago, who goes by the name Miss Merlot, a young woman in her 20s. This author asked her to be invited back to pose with O’Brien for a photo for American Drycleaner and she accepted. She wore her spray paint safety mask, however, to protect her identity.

On a bright fall day, they stood in front of the sea of greens of the wondrous graffiti artwork adorning O’Brien’s east wall of his drycleaning plant. It’s a long building. The green is soothing, calming.

“It took her three days to install,” O’Brien notes. “Miss Merlot showed me designs and ideas on (her) computer at first, and we worked with her. She was wonderful.”

BPAI board member Rob Kowalski and his wife Melissa, also a member, came by for the photos as well and were beaming about the mural. “Commuters see it, residents come by, it’s great,” Rob Kowalski relates.

They express plans to do a future graffiti art project, possibly right across the big parking lot eastward, as they eye another space on a long, brick building.

O’Brien grins in the autumn sun. “Ninety-nine-point-eight percent of people love it, and tell me so, and that’s pretty good,” he laughs with an Irish twinkle in his blue eyes.

He continues: “I am a father of three beautiful daughters and I reside in Berwyn as well as work here. O’Brien The Cleaner has been in this town for 50 years as of this past spring. My father, Joseph O’Brien, originated this cleaning business in 1947 in Chicago.”

He notes that the Chicago location burned down during the riots of 1968. “After the devastating loss, my parents decided to relocate the business to Berwyn, which is about 15 minutes west. My father chose the Berwyn location because it was one of the first  stores to include a drive-up window.”

Being involved in the art project and living in the city makes him feel more involved in his community and more connected to his local customers, who are neighbors, too.

“Ultimately,” he says, “I have found that talking with customers, learning their first names and genuinely listening to them has been the best way to build long-lasting relationships. In this way you learn more about yourself, others, and the business. Customers feel open to express their thoughts and opinions and trust you with their garments.”

The learning portion comes with growing in your local community, something many drycleaning owners and operators share. Community is a big part of many operations. It’s shown in participation in clothing and dress drives, charitable works, and so many other ways.

O’Brien’s also sports a large bulletin board just inside the front door, covering almost an entire wall of the store, and it is overflowing, festooned you might even say, with town event notices, colorful posters, bulletins and handwritten notes of all manner, from dog-walking to bake sales to music in the park and more. It’s another way of showing that the community is vibrant and active — and so is the cleaners!

Check back Thursday for the conclusion.

About the author

Tim Burke

American Drycleaner


Tim Burke is the editor of American Drycleaner. He can be reached at 312-361-1684 or [email protected]


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